Human Ecology Theory
Human Ecology Theory
Theories of human interaction should provide a way of making sense of events that have happened in the past, and then allow us to make predictions about what may happen in the future. Human ecology theory is a way of looking at the interactions of humans with their environments and considering this relationship as a system. In this theoretical framework, biological, social, and physical aspects of the organism are considered within the context of their environments. These environments may be the natural world, reality as constructed by humans, and/or the social and cultural milieu in which the organism exists.
Human ecological theory is probably one of the earliest theories of the family and yet, it also contains many new and evolving elements that have emerged as we have begun to realize how the natural and human created environments affect our behavior, and how individuals and families in turn, influence these environments. In human ecology, the person and the environment are viewed as being interconnected in an active process of mutual influence and change.
The Origins of Human Ecological Theory
The origin of the term ecology comes from the Greek root oikos meaning "home." As a result, the field of home economics, now often called human ecology, has produced much of the contemporary research using this theoretical perspective. Margaret Bubolz and M. Suzanne Sontag (1993) attribute the concept of an ecological approach to the work of Aristotle and Plato, and then to the evolutionary theory of Darwin. They trace the word ecology to Ernest Haeckel, a German zoologist who, in 1869, proposed that the individual was a product of cooperation between the environment and organismal heredity and suggested that a science be developed to study organisms in their environment. Early home economists were major proponents of this theory as their field developed in the early twentieth century applying various disciplines to the study of the family. The theory has since been used by sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists. This work continues, with the human ecological framework being a major perspective in research and theory development in the twenty-first century.
The Family as a System
The application of systems theory is a basic tenet of human ecological theory. The family is seen as a system, with boundaries between it and other systems, such as the community and the economic system. Systems have inputs that drive various processes and actions, such as the finite amounts of money or time that families possess. They also have throughputs, which are the transformation processes that occur within the system, such as the exchange of money for the provision of an essential service, such as food, by eating in a restaurant. In addition, systems have outputs, which affect other systems, such the production of waste materials, which are byproducts of activity in the family, being returned to the larger environment. There are feedback loops from the end of the system back to the beginning, to provide both positive and negative comment back into the process and allow the system to adapt to change. In an ecosystem, the parts and the whole are interdependent.
Most theorists outline an ecosystem, most particularly a human ecosystem or a family ecosystem, as being composed of three organizing concepts: humans, their environment, and the interactions between them. The humans can be any group of individuals dependent on the environment for their subsistence. The environment includes the natural environment, which is made up of the atmosphere, climate, plants, and microorganisms that support life. Another environment is that built by humans, which includes roads, machines, shelter, and material goods. As Sontag and Bubolz (1996) discuss, embedded in the natural and human-built environments is the social-cultural environment, which includes other human beings; cultural constructs such as language, law, and values; and social and economic institutions such as our market economy and regulatory systems. The ecosystem interacts at the boundaries of these systems as they interface, but also can occur within any part of an ecosystem that causes a change in or acts upon any other part of the system. Change in any part of the system affects the system as a whole and its other subparts, creating the need for adaptation of the entire system, rather than minor attention to only one aspect of it.
There are also systems nested within systems, which delineate factors farther and farther from individual control, and that demonstrate the effects of an action occurring in one system affecting several others. Urie Bronfenbrenner's analysis of the systems such as the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem are an integral part of the theory. The microsystem is our most immediate context, and for most children, is represented by their family and their home. Young children usually interact with only one person until they develop and their world expands. The mesosystem is where a child experiences reality, such as at a school or childcare setting. Links between the institutions in the mesosystem and the child's family enhance the development of academic competence. The exosystem is one in which the child does not participate directly, but that affects the child's experiences. This may be a parent's workplace and the activities therein, or bureaucracies that affect children, such as decisions made by school boards about extracurricular activities. Our broadest cultural identities make up the macrosystem. This system includes our ideologies, our shared assumptions of what is right, and the general organization of the world. Children are affected by war, by religious activities, by racism and sexist values, and by the very culture in which they grow up. A child who is able to understand and deal with the ever-widening systems in his or her reality is the product of a healthy microsystem.
Bubolz and Sontag (1993) outline five broad questions that are best answered using this theory, which is helpful in deciding areas where the theory can make a useful contribution to our knowledge. These are:
- To understand the processes by which families function and adapt—how do they ensure survival, improve their quality of life, and sustain their natural resources?
- To determine in what ways families allocate and manage resources to meet needs and goals of individuals and families as a group. How do these decisions affect the quality of life and the quality of the environment? How are family decisions influenced by other systems?
- How do various kinds and levels of environments and changes to them affect human development? How does the family system adapt when one or more of its members make transitions into other environmental settings, such as day care, schools, and nursing homes?
- What can be done to create, manage, or enhance environments to improve both the quality of life for humans, and to conserve the environment and resources necessary for life?
- What changes are necessary to improve humans' lives? How can families and family professionals contribute to the process of change?
The studies and concept development based upon human ecological theory range from very abstract to concrete. Bronfenbrenner (1979), one of the first researchers to rely extensively on human ecology theory in studies of children and families, defined an ecological perspective by focusing on development as a function of interaction between the developing organism and the enduring environments or contexts in which it lives out its life. He applies the theory in a practical way to explain quality factors in day care for children, the value of flexible employment schedules for parents, and improving the status of women. Bronfenbrenner argues that the child always develops in the context of family relationships and that development is the outcome of the child's genetic attributes combined with their immediate family and eventually with other components of the environment. This work stands in contrast to many psychological studies that explain individual behavior solely by considering individual traits and abilities.
James Garbarino (1997) uses human ecological theory to explain abuse in families, especially toward children. He considers the nature-or-nurture dilemma–whether the powerful influence of the environment can override the conditions of our biology. The interactions between these factors are difficult to research, because often one is held constant in order to assess variations in the other. For example, studying genetically identical twins reared separately to show the effect of nature or nurture on intelligence, or seeing how different newborns react to the stimulus of a smiling human face, are one-dimensional perspectives. Garbarino has collaborated with other authors in 1994 and 1996 in considering the effects of the political environment in Palestine on children's behavior problems.
The model has been used by researchers to investigate problems in various cultural contexts. Bengt-Erik Andersson (1986) shows how different social environments of children in Sweden influence their development, especially environments represented by their peer group, their neighborhood, and whether they had been latch-key children. Amy Avgar, Urie Bronfenbrenner, and Charles R. Henderson (1977) consider childrearing practices in Israel in three different community settings—the communal kibbutz, the cooperative moshav, and the city. The study surveys preadolescents, asking them to respond on behalf of their mother, father, peer, and teacher. It finds that the traditional family structure exerts a major effect on the predicted socialization patterns, although it also notes the effect of the larger society, with significant differences among the three communities.
Sontag and Bubolz (1996) use the ecosystem model to conceptualize the interaction between farm enterprises and family life. The family, the farm, and other components are mutually interdependent and cannot be considered separately. For example, they consider production, as well as decision-making and management activities, from the perspective of both agricultural and home production. Margaret Bubolz and Alice Whiren (1984) use an ecological systems model for analysis of the family with a handicapped member. They show that these families are vulnerable to stress because of the demands placed on them for physical care, attending to emotional needs, and locating and obtaining access to support services. They conclude that the total needs of the family must be considered when policy decisions and programs are devised rather than focusing only on the handicapped family member.
A basic premise of a human ecological theory is that of the interdependence of all peoples of the world with the resources of the earth. The world's ecological health depends on decisions and actions taken not only by nations, but also by individuals and families, a fact that is increasingly being realized. Although the concept of a family ecosystem is not a precise one, and some of the terms have not been clearly and consistently defined, a human ecological theoretical perspective provides a way to consider complex, multilevel relationships and integrate many kinds of data into an analysis. As new ways of analyzing and combining data from both qualitative and quantitative dimensions of interconnected variables develop, this theoretical perspective will become more precise and continue to enhance understanding of the realities of family life.
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bronfenbrenner, u. (1979). the ecology of human development. cambridge, ma: harvard university press.
bubolz, m. m., and sontag, m. s. (1993). "human ecologytheory." in sourcebook of family theories and methods: a contextual approach, ed. p. boss, w. j. doherty, r. larossa, w. r. schumm, and s. k. steinmetz. new york: plenum press.
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ruth e. berry
"Human Ecology Theory." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/human-ecology-theory
"Human Ecology Theory." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/human-ecology-theory
Human ecology, the study of the relationships between humans and their environments, is a field with a large scope and complex history. It arose out of multiple disciplines—animal biology, anthropology, geology, ecology, and sociology—in the early 1900s as scientists struggled to make sense of the impact of humans on the man-made and natural environment and the impact of environments on the social systems of humans. Human ecology is also viewed by many as a methodology or framework for studying human activities and social institutions, often in conjunction with the health and functioning of the natural environment.
The earliest mention of human ecology can be found in the early 1900s among animal ecologists, who, as a result of studying population trends among plants and animals, suggested that ecological principles also applied to humans and their relationship to the natural environment. Later, biological ecologists and population scientists used similar concepts—such as ecosystem, environmental niche (the space occupied by an organism in which it can survive and reproduce), feedback loop, stability, and growth—to address issues of population growth and environmental destruction; this line of study became particularly prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, as in the 1973 work of Paul Erhlich, Anne Erhlich, and John Holdren. Also in the 1970s, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) developed an ecological model of human development to understand the reciprocal relationships between individuals and the multiple environments in which they live. Gerald Marten (2001) uses human ecology and complex systems theory as a framework to examine economic systems and other social institutions and their impact on the natural environment. In particular, he discusses human ecology as a tool for resolving issues of sustainable development and environmental problems by understanding the complex interrelationship between human social systems and the ecosystem.
Anthropologists used ecological concepts to study the history and culture of human groups and societies to explain their success, failure, or adaptation. The concepts of equilibrium, movement of resources, sustainable development (meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), and the adaptation of organizational systems have been applied to the study of families, communities, race relations, schools, workplaces, government agencies, and other social institutions. It was in the study of urban environments that the concepts of human ecology achieved prominence. Sociologists working in this area—Park and Burgess (1920s), Frazier and Sutherland (1930s), and Janowitz (1950s)—addressed key issues such as the impact of human settlement on land-use patterns (for example, traffic flow patterns, water and flood management), the intertwined history of industrial development and urban decay, race relations, and white flight to the suburbs—in other words, the components of urban and regional planning. The underlying issue is understanding how demands for space and resources influence the development of community and business organizations across rural and urban landscapes, and how the environment influences the structures and strictures imposed by human social systems.
The sociological approach to human ecology was epitomized by the Chicago School—an approach to research pioneered most famously by the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago beginning in the 1920s and 1930s—which focused on using theory and field research methods to understand human behavior and organization in the urban environment. Beginning in the early 1920s, scholars such as Ernest Burgess and Robert E. Park employed ecological concepts to explain the development of cities and communities. For example, the POET model—population, organization, environment, and technology—was developed to address the complex relationships between humans, their social organizations, and their environments. One of the architects of sociological human ecology was Amos Hawley (b. 1910), a population specialist and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who argued that human ecology was “the basic social science” (1944, p. 405). Hawley is known for his work on the conceptual and theoretical foundations of sociological human ecology (see Hawley 1986) and the associations among population, the social-political-economic environment, and change in developing nations.
Human development is a subfield within the larger field of human ecology. In the 1970s Bronfenbrenner developed the ecological theory of human development, which made use of the general principles of ecology, general systems theory, and human development to explain individual differences in cognitive, biological, and social-emotional development in context. Bronfenbrenner conceived of context as a series of concentric circles, with the individual at the center and each circle representing increasingly complex environments, from proximal to distal, that might affect the development of the individual. Lines of influence are viewed as reciprocal within and between environments. For example, the most proximal environment for a child is the family, represented by parent-child interactions, child-sibling interactions, and marital interactions, all of which may influence some aspect of the child’s development. Just as humans do not live in isolation from nature, a family does not exist in isolation, but operates in a microsystem encompassing those individuals with whom children and parents have regular and ongoing interaction. The third circle represents larger societal institutions, such as schools, businesses, churches, and local government, and the outer circle (the exosystem, or societal institutions that form larger environments of family units) represents larger structural institutions such as state and federal government and international social systems whose polices and laws may affect families and their natural environments. This theoretical framework explicitly recognizes that individuals do not develop in isolation; interactions with families and social groups influence individual development across the lifespan and across generations.
As an academic discipline, human ecology has emerged around the world as a field that brings together various aspects of sociology, economics, home economics, anthropology, gender studies, community development, agronomy, and regional planning. The concepts of human ecology fit into the scientific framework of multiple disciplines, all of which examine some aspect of the interactions between humans and their multiple environments. In a 1994 article William Catton suggests that sociologists “must learn to see human social life ineluctably intertwined with other components of ecosystems” if human ecology is to understand and address the problems of human societies (p. 86). Although different, not always overlapping strains of human ecology have evolved in multiple disciplines, the central concepts are strikingly similar, whether pertaining to issues of urban and regional planning, the use of natural resources and sustainable development, or the study of individuals and families. Humans and their social systems, from small to large, must be viewed within their larger environments, including the natural environment, to trace the “chain of effects through ecosystems and human society, and by understanding more generally how people interact with ecosystems” (Marten 2001, p. xv).
Researchers and writers across multiple disciplines agree that human ecology is a valuable framework for studying and understanding the interrelationships between the social systems of humans and the systems of nature. The health of humans, their social systems, and their natural environments may depend on an understanding of this interdependency.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Anthropology, Urban; Cities; Development; Development Economics; Planning; Social Science; Sociology; Sociology, Rural; Sociology, Urban; Urban Studies; Urbanization
Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1979. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bronfenbrenner, Urie, and Pamela A. Morris. 1998. The Bioecological Model of Human Development. In Theoretical Models of Child Development, Vol. 1 of Handbook of Child Psychology, 5th ed., ed. William Damon, 993–1028. New York: John Wiley.
Catton, William R., Jr. 1994. Foundations of Human Ecology. Sociological Perspectives 37 (1): 75–95.
Ehrlich, Paul. R., Anne H. Ehrlich, and John P. Holdren. 1973. Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Hawley, Amos H. 1944. Ecology and Human Ecology. Social Forces 22 (4): 398–405.
Hawley, Amos H. 1950. Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. New York: Ronald Press.
Hawley, Amos H. 1986. Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marten, Gerald G. 2001. Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development. London and Sterling, CA: Earthscan Publications.
Micklin, Michael, and Harvey M. Choldin, eds. 1984. Sociological Human Ecology: Contemporary Issues and Applications. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Katherine Jewsbury Conger
"Human Ecology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/human-ecology
"Human Ecology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/human-ecology
Human ecology is the interaction between humans and their environment, particularly the living ecosystems on which human life depends. An ecosystem is all the living organisms in a habitat, such as the fish and algae in a pond or the trees and earthworms in a forest, and the physical factors that support and affect them, such as sunlight and precipitation. Humans collect or grow food and fuel resources from Earth's ecosystems and are part of the Earth's food chains, where plants fix energy via photosynthesis, then animal herbivores consume the plants, and animal predators consume the herbivores. In the wake of global industrialization and a great increase in human population size, people are having an ever greater impact on the function and structure of the Earth's ecosystems. Humans are clearing much of the world's forest land, damming many of the world's rivers, and managing a majority of the Earth's most productive soils for agriculture.
Although science and engineering can develop new technologies that damage the environment, scientific research can conversely provide new environmentally friendly technologies for controlling pollution, collecting energy, and improving crop yields. Scientists studying ecosystems guide human interactions with the environment by documenting and monitoring human-initiated disturbances that result from, for example, the harvesting of timber, the catching of fish, or the building of cities, and they test new methods of restoring damaged ecosystems.
The world's religions also encourage human respect and care for ecosystems by providing explanations for natural phenomena and by discouraging destructive human activities and attitudes. The myths of Pacific Northwest Indians, for example, describe the cycle of salmon returning from the sea to spawn in rivers. The First Fish ceremony, held at the beginning of the salmon runs, temporarily halts all salmon harvest, thereby allowing some fish to escape and lay their eggs. Religious rituals or teachings can guide planting times and soil-conserving fallow on farm fields. Some Christian and Jewish farmers follow biblical instructions to provide a Sabbath year for the land to allow the soil to recover from crops. Islamic law provides guidance in managing wells, irrigation, and grazing lands. Religion may also protect the environment by discouraging greed and waste, and by encouraging respect for all creatures. The Jewish law found in the Torah, for example, prohibits wanton destruction of natural features, such as trees. Buddhists carefully replace insects and worms disturbed by plowing agricultural fields.
Religions may also designate ecosystems or species as sacred or provide them with special status, thus reducing over-harvest and conserving ecosystem components, such as predators. Native Hawaiian religion, for example, identifies some large sharks as family deities, thereby prohibiting their capture. Australian aborigines learn to respect plants and animals by adopting them as clan totems. Christian Ethiopian monks allow wildlife to remain undisturbed on their monastic grounds. Many religions identify scared trees or groves that may not be cut, or holy springs or rivers that may not be polluted.
Although they are frequently portrayed as opposites, both science and religion guide human environmental decision-making by identifying the best management alternatives, and encouraging human respect for, care of, and right relationship with the Earth's ecosystems.
See also Biological Diversity; Christianity, History of Science and Religion; Ecofeminism; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Ecotheology; Islam, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Judaism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion
cooper, david e., and palmer, joy a. spirit of the environment: religion, value, and environmental concern. london: routledge, 1998.
kinsley, david. ecology and religion: ecological spirituality in cross-cultural perspective. upper saddle river, n.j.: prentice hall, 1995.
susan powers bratton
"Human Ecology." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/human-ecology
"Human Ecology." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/human-ecology
In its later forms (see A. Hawley , Human Ecology, 1950
) human ecology rejects any simple application to human societies of the competitive and evolutionary mechanisms by which biologists explain the distribution of species in varying physical environments. Instead it is ‘a logical extension of the system of thought and the techniques of investigation developed in the study of the collective life of lower organisms to the study of man’. This involves examining how human groups produce particular patterns of social relationships when adapting to their environment. Adaptation exhibits basic characteristics thought to be inherent properties of any social system: namely, human interdependence, and functionally differentiated social institutions, including dominant institutions performing certain key functions. Under normal circumstances social change is limited to that required to restore equilibrium conditions. Ecologists such as Hawley sought ecological explanations of human behaviour and culture as well as of spatial patterns (see his The Changing Shape of Metropolitan America, 1955, and Urban Society, 1971
Human ecology is often claimed as a general approach, useful for the study of social life in a variety of disciplines, including social anthropology, human geography, and urban economics. Its direct influence on contemporary sociological thought is limited, although its has obvious affinities with structural-functional theory, notably in its emphasis on the adaptive mechanisms by which social equilibrium is maintained, seeing these as an inevitable basis for social existence, and largely discounting the more radical possibilities for social change occurring through human agency. See also URBAN ECOLOGY.
"human ecology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/human-ecology
"human ecology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/human-ecology
"ecology, human." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ecology-human
"ecology, human." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ecology-human